Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

Shakespeare's Reading in Chaucer

NEVILL COGHILL

A CORAL growth of scholarship, resulting from a long search for sources, has gradually spread itself out towards the later Middle Ages, to link a part of Shakespeare's thought and matter with its origins in Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate. That he had a kind of acquaintance with their works is hardly to be doubted; Troilus and Cressida and The Two Noble Kinsmen are, ultimately, as firmly anchored to Chaucer as Pericles is to Gower, however far they have dragged their moorings.

Yet the evidence that Shakespeare actually read Chaucer, or, if he did, what parts of Chaucer and how deeply, is very tenuous; there is an accumulation of little scattered touches, hardly one of which would be considerable by itself; some of them indeed have a snow- flake quality of melting away under further criticism, only to reappear in some later snowfall of suggested parallels, references, and clues. Under this snow, the frontiers of the objective and the subjective have sometimes seemed to change.

It is, of course, extremely likely that Shakespeare was read in Chaucer, for Chaucer was common Tudor reading; during the first thirty years and more of Shakespeare's life, his might even be considered to have been what we have learnt to call 'an O.K. name'. We hear of him 'seated in a chaire of gold', and Bamaby Googe, writing in 1569, described him as 'that gem of poetrie who passed the reach of any English braine'. Yet there came a change in taste; a generation later, Chaucer seemed a figure looming uncertainly out of a misty past: ' Chaucer is harde even to our understanding' wrote Marston in 1598.1 He was going out of fashion as the century turned.

Yet if, like other people, Shakespeare read his Chaucer, that is not

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1
For these and other sixteenth- and seventeenth-century references to Chaucer see Caroline Spurgeon Hundred Tears of Chaucer Criticisms and Allusion, 1925; Hyder E. Rollins, "The Troilus-Cressida Story'", P.M.L.A., 1917, xxxii. 383; Franklin B. Williams, "'Unnoticed Chaucer Allusions, 1550-1650'", P.Q., 1937, xvi. 67; Brice Harris, "'Some Seventeenth-Century Chaucer Allusions'", P.Q., 1939, xviii. 395; Helen Sanderson, "'An Elizabethan Economist's Method of Literary Composition'", H.L.Q, 1942-3, vi. 205.

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